Pulitzer Prize-winning author unlocks social world of nature's most complex societies

February 4, 2014

Editor's Note: The 2013 ASU Regents' Professors will be honored at a special induction ceremony at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 6, in the Galvin Playhouse on the Tempe campus.

Social insects have fueled the public and private pursuits of ASU professor Bert Hölldobler, and form the root of his much-lauded career as a scientist, author and public figure. He sees ants – with their hundreds of different forms, habits, quirks and lifestyles – as one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet. They are, he says, “ecologically, the most important species in almost all land ecosystems, and their cooperative group behavior is unparalleled in the animal kingdom.” ASU Regents' Professor Bert Hölldobler Download Full Image

For his pioneering theory and fundamental new discoveries into the behavioral physiology, chemical communication and orientation behavior of nature's most complex societies – the ants – Hölldobler has been awarded Arizona State University's highest faculty distinction: Regents' Professor.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Hölldobler also has served as a nexus for building research partnerships across the globe, and educational opportunities that cut across boundaries of discipline, institution and country of origin.

“Professor Hölldobler’s research and collaborations have impacted some of the most prestigious arts and sciences organizations and scientists in the world," said ASU Provost Robert E. Page, Jr., a professor and Foundation Chair of Life Sciences in ASU's School of Life Sciences. "However, perhaps the greatest impact of his 50 years of scientific study and communication of science to the public is how he’s changed how people in every walk of life view our world.”

Hölldobler believes that ants can serve as a source to answer some of the most fundamental questions in biology. This view on nature has allowed him to create avenues, through his lectures and books, for everyone to see the connection between nature’s creatures and the remarkable role and variety of biodiversity in maintaining a healthy planet. His work also considers the complexity in our own human systems.

Hölldobler joined ASU in 2004, following professorships with University of Frankfurt, Harvard University, Cornell University and University of Würzburg, Germany. He has advised or co-advised 50 doctorate or master's students, and taught courses that include Animal Behavior, Behavioral Physiology and Neuroethology, Sociobiology and Behavioral Ecology, Chemical Ecology, Sociobiology, Biomicry and Human Design.

In addition to his Pulitzer Prize, Hölldobler’s honors include 24 of the top awards for scientific research and lifetime achievement, including the prestigious Cothenius Medal. It is the highest recognition the German National Academy, the oldest Academy of Sciences in the world, bestows on its members or other scientists in recognition of their lifetime scientific achievements.

“It is altogether fitting that Arizona State University is the latest in a long line of important institutions to honor the scholarly career of professor Bert Hölldobler,” said Patrick Kenney, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of the Institute for Social Science Research. “We join the entire ASU community to recognize and congratulate professor Hölldobler for his many, varied and compelling scholarly contributions across a long and distinguished career.”  

In ASU’s School of Life Sciences, an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Hölldobler built a dynamic research group – the social insect research group (SIRG). This collective of faculty members, postdocs and graduate students studies bees, ants, termites and wasps, with a focus on neuroscience, biomedicine, genetics and epigenetics, complex adaptive systems and robotics. Harvard University professor emeritus Edward O. Wilson, Hölldobler’s long-standing research partner, described this group and ASU as “the best in the world in research in sociobiology.”

The group’s synergistic partnerships contributed to many high-impact publications and advances. These include the sequencing of the first complete genome of the honey bee and two ant species, with partners from across the globe. The publication of the complete sequence of four more genomes in 2010 opened the door to understanding several economically important ant species: the fire ant, the Argentine ant, the harvester ant and, Hölldobler’s favorite ant species, the leaf-cutter ant.

“Like few scientific leaders, professor Hölldobler has distinguished himself in creating a new generation of scientists in his wake,” said Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor in the School of Life Sciences. “His teaching and innately nurturing style of mentoring empowered his students, many now renowned professors in the best universities in America, Europe and Asia. Many of our own ASU faculty can also claim Bert’s influential mentorship in their careers.”

“Bert’s research has irrevocably transformed the understanding of science through his studies of ant social organization, and building ASU’s social insect biology program into one of the top programs in the world,” said Brian Smith, director of the School of Life Sciences. “But what is more remarkable is that his written work and speaking commitments are accessible and inspire scientists and laypeople alike. Bert Hölldobler is one of the most distinguished professors at ASU, and most deserving of the title Regents’ Professor.”

Peggy Coulombe
(480) 727-8934
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

• Hölldobler’s scientific field work has taken him from Argentina, Australia, Costa Rica, French Guiana, Germany, Finland, Kenya, India, Jamaica, Panama and Sri Lanka to Arizona, Florida, New England, New Mexico and Texas in the United States.

• He has served the scientific community through a variety of activities. These include participation on scientific review panels in the United States and Germany, and on editorial boards for 14 scientific publications since 1973. Currently, he supports the journals Zoology, Journal of Insect Behavior, Chemoecology, Deutsche Entomologische Zeitschrift and Die Naturwissenschaften.

• Hölldobler has authored or co-authored more than 312 scientific research papers since 1960, in addition to four books authored with longtime collaborator, Harvard Professor Emeritus Edward O. Wilson. This dynamic duo received the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for “The Ants,” which also received the R. R. Hawkins Prize from the Association of American Publishers for the Most Outstanding Professional Reference or Scholarly Work. This ground-breaking work was also chosen as #27 on the list of the top 100 books of the century, released by Modern Library list of Random House Publishers.

• Their second book, “Journey to the Ants,” opened the world of ants to wider, general readers. Translated into 13 languages, the work was short-listed for the Rhône-Poulenc-Prize, received the Phi Beta Kappa-Prize and was hailed as a “masterpiece” by Scientific American and “the greatest of all entomology books” by the journal Science.

• The duo’s third book, “The Superorganism: The beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies,” was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and Library Journals Top Sci-Tech Book of the Year in 2008, and one of the stand-out books of the year by the Financial Times in 2009. This work chronicles the remarkable growth of knowledge about social insects over two decades. More recently, Hölldobler and Wilson have gone on to pen a handbook: “The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct,” which has offered general audiences information and stunning photographs, many taken by Hölldobler, focusing on the charismatic, underground farmer of fungus – the leaf-cutter ant (2011).

• Professor Hölldobler’s work has also been featured on film and television, including Animal Planet and the Science Channel. “Ants: Nature’s Secret Power” was an award-winning film developed about Hölldobler’s research and the ant nations – their complexity, social dynamics, versatility and majesty. Produced by Wolfgang Thaler and Adi Mayer Films for ORF Austrian Broadcasting with Docstar and WDR in 2005, the film won 19 international film prizes, including the Special Jury Prize from the International Wildlife Film Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


Learning scientist pioneers new field of thought in literacy studies

February 4, 2014

Editor's Note: The 2013 ASU Regents' Professors will be honored at a special induction ceremony at 4:30 p.m., Feb. 6, in the Galvin Playhouse on the Tempe campus.

Arizona State University’s James Gee would like you to believe that his globally acclaimed reputation for pioneering research in three distinct learning science disciplines came about by chance. But there is no denying the singular impact of his scholarly contributions over three decades to the study of language and literacy, and more recently, to what digital games can teach us about both. ASU Regents' Professor James Gee Download Full Image

“I’ve done many things in my career, and I’ve done them in a sense, accidentally,” said Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, co-founder of ASU’s Center for Games and Impact and member of the National Academy of Education. “For every book I’ve written (about 14 of them now), every one of them had an origin story that I couldn’t have predicted. I’ve been very fortunate that what I’ve pursued has worked.”

Indeed, Gee has written more than one foundational book in the learning sciences, resulting in citations by the thousands. Published in 1990, "Sociolinguistics and Literacies" is considered a founding document of New Literacy Studies, an interdisciplinary field devoted to the study of language, learning and literacy in their cognitive, social and cultural contexts.

His more recent foray into digital games and learning produced "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" in 2003. Gee said he wrote the games book as a “virus” to entice people to read his literacy and learning theories.

“But my timing was, by accident, impeccable,” Gee insisted. “It was the first book out on this topic just at a time when people in the game industry needed an academic to give them validity. So the book just took off, unlike anything I’ve ever written.”

Gee described how his career has taken a circuitous route as he ventured into mostly uncharted areas of study. He started out as a theoretical linguist, studying language in very abstract terms. Then he focused on language in its cultural and social settings. That led him to a side interest in stylistics poetry, analyzing the meaning and function of literature. Next, he became interested in language in the real world after landing in an applied linguistics program in a college of education.

“For the first time, I became aware of educational issues,” Gee said. “I discovered that schools are the perfect place to study language in its cultural, institutional and social settings. That piqued my interest in literacy, beyond just oral language, at a time when there was great debate over how to teach reading.”  

Gee said it fascinated him that reading was so caught up in political and ideological issues: “I wanted to develop a theory that melded learning and literacy so I could talk about how society and the mind relate to one other.”

He did that in 1999 with his widely influential book, "An Introduction to Discourse Analysis," which articulated his methodology of how language enacts our social and cultural perspectives and identities. So Gee was already an accomplished learning scientist when a chance encounter with video games diverted his direction once again.

“I was playing a child’s video game, Pajama Sam, with my six-year-old son, and I was intrigued by how it set up problems that you could solve collaboratively,” he said. “So I went out and bought an adult game thinking that it was going to be a toy. But I discovered that these games were very complex and that you failed constantly.

“My background expertise meant nothing, and that allowed me to see learning in a whole new frame.”

While at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Gee founded Games, Learning & Society which hosts an annual gathering of academic researchers, video game developers and government and industry leaders. It became the model for ASU’s Center for Games and Impact. Gee launched CGI in 2011 with its director, Sasha Barab, Pinnacle West Presidential Chair of Educational Innovation in ASU’s Teachers College and Senior Scientist in its Learning Sciences Institute.

“You can do things at ASU much faster,” Gee noted. “It’s more entrepreneurial here.”

Gee comes by his entrepreneurial spirit honestly, the son of a World War II paratrooper who survived the D-Day invasion after escaping the Dust Bowl in Kansas during the Depression. Armed with a third-grade education, Gee’s father started a cab company in San Jose, Calif. But it was Gee’s British war bride mother who transformed it into a small-business success story after his father’s passing. Then she promptly sold it to buy the bridal gown store she had always wanted.

Gee recalled that his mother loved to visit the Stanford University campus where he completed his master’s and doctoral programs through state scholarships: “Mom had a very high view of education. She was always proud that I used my head to make a living.”